Higher Achievement closes the opportunity gap during the pivotal middle school years. By leveraging the power of communities, Higher Achievement’s proven model provides a rigorous year-round learning environment, caring role models, and a culture of high expectations, resulting in college-bound scholars with the character, confidence, and skills to succeed.

Tell us a little about your mission statement and your organization’s work.

Founded in 1975, Higher Achievement expands opportunities for low-income, minority youth by providing rigorous year-round learning to improve grades, test scores, school attendance, and academic behaviors. A tight network, made up of staff and volunteer mentors, supports scholars during some of the most challenging years in child development – middle school.

Higher Achievement is not drop-in or episodic – it is intensive and transformative. Fifth – eighth grade scholars commit 650 hours each year to academic enrichment after school and in the summer, benefiting from homework help, arts and sports electives, youth development and leadership opportunities, academic contests, career field trips, small group academic mentoring, small class summer instruction, and overnight college trips. This annual commitment is the equivalent of 100 extra days of school each year.

After graduating from the program, up to 100% of our alumni (varies across affiliates) go on to college preparatory high school programs. Additionally, 95% of Higher Achievement scholars graduate high school on time, compared to 63% of their peers.

What advice would you offer for other nonprofit leaders/organizations striving for excellence in nonprofit management?

Three key strategies inform Higher Achievement’s successes, and we would encourage any nonprofit leader to consider adopting them in their organization:

Goal-Setting.Identify the clear and measurable outcomes that you want to achieve across your organization, as well as SMART goals to guide individual staff work plans each year. Then, invest in the systems, staff, and relationships required to successfully secure, analyze, and act on the data to ensure a continuous improvement cycle.

Tackle Challenges Head-On, with an Eye for the Future. When facing a challenge, strike the right balance between addressing the timely issue, but don’t forget to pull up and look down the road. At Higher Achievement, for instance, we are currently focused on successful implementation of our five-year, $12 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the US Department of Education which is spurring our most rapid period of growth in the organization’s history. At the same time, we are developing and monitoring five-year revenue and expense projections, and identifying the staffing and systems that will be required to sustain this growth.

Invest in Your People. Invest in the human capital required to succeed. Higher Achievement has carefully focused on human capital to make sure that the organization’s greatest asset – its people – are well-supported and successful. As noted earlier in the AIM Award application process, Higher Achievement has identified five core competencies that every staff member should embody, no matter his or her role or seniority in the organization. Those are:

a. Relationship Builder
b. Candid Communicator
c. Growth Mindset
d. Pursuer of Excellence
e. Solutions-Oriented

Each of these core competencies has a specific proficiency scale, and we are building action plans for all staff to improve on each. We believe it is critical to collectively name, understand, and commit to these skills that are universal across Higher Achievement. We also use these competencies in the hiring and performance evaluation processes.

What does this award mean for you and your organization?

Being named the winner of the AIM Award represents the culmination of a significant organization turnaround. Four years ago, in spring 2012, Higher Achievement was facing a fiscal cliff. For the previous four years Higher Achievement had been guided by a plan to reach 10 cities by 2017. However, the economy had bottomed out and our financial assumptions no longer held. We had gold-standard proof of impact, thanks to a randomized control trial study conducted over six years, but our funding assumptions were not holding as we expanded into new markets. We had to think differently about our model and how we partnered with others.

After undergoing a CEO transition, downsizing our national office, and openly communicating with our supporters about these changes, Higher Achievement adopted a new strategic plan that challenged us to partner more closely with schools, engage new partners (corporate sponsors) in supporting our work, and amplify the impact of our model beyond the students we directly serve. Our audits during that time tell our turnaround story. In August 2011, our net assets were negative $2.9 million. By August 2013, they were positive $433,000. We continue to strengthen our operations and rebuild our reserves to guard against rainy days and prepare for “sunny days” too – to allow us to take advantage of opportunities. Winning the AIM Award is a powerful stamp of approval for this turnaround and our work going forward.

Describe one management best practice of which you are particularly proud.

Higher Achievement’s management dashboard, developed through a rich pro bono partnership with Censeo Consulting (valued at $310,000), has elevated our program practices and management. With frequent updates (on a weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual basis), people at every level of the organization, from front-line center staff to the Board of Directors, can see clearly how we are performing against a myriad of goals. These goals range from scholar daily attendance to mentor recruitment to academic gains to costs per scholar. At Higher Achievement we endeavor to use data as a flashlight, not a hammer. The dashboard fosters open communication about challenges, sharing of successes to help others, and transparency throughout the organization. Best of all, it combines data and information already used in our program and finance management systems, leveraging the time and energy we have already invested to improve operations across the organization.